Astronomers at the University of Illinois, using photographs taken with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered a cradle in which new planets and moons are formed. It is made up of a flattened envelop of gases and dust and surrounds a young protostar, which is the material that will become a star will develop after the process of hydrogen fusion begins.
What they have seen is a solar system in the very earliest stages of being born. Some time in the future, that protostar will become a star, very much like our very own sun, and then the disk will be its planets and moons.
The only reason that they were able to see the cradle, which is located about 800 light years away from Earth in the constellation Cepheus is because the Spitzer Space Telescope is equipped with very sensitive infrared camera equipment, which is able to see through the dust that conceals the system from view.
The brightest structure in the developing system is a simply enormous, almost straight lined flow of shocked molecular hydrogen gas that is erupting out of the magnetic poles of the protostar. To put things in perspective, these bipolar jets are so huge that it would take light, which travels at 300,000 kilometers per second in outer space, ½ years to go from end to end. (300 000 kilometer = 186 ,411.357 66 miles per second)
The theory behind the formation of stars is that a cloud made up of gas and dust collapses in on itself and eventually forms a star and its planets. As the cloud collapses, it begins to spin around going ever faster and faster. As it spins, its magnetic field grows and gets stronger, and ejects some of the gas and dust up and down the magnetic axis. It is this gas and dust that forms the bipolar jets that they saw in the photograph. If the material was not ejected, the spin of the protostar would just keep speeding up until it fell apart.
The region in which the planets are forming runs perpendicular to, and is roughly centered on the polar jets.
The concept of the flattened disk has been just a never seen theory that has now become real. There have been theories that the envelopes would flatten as it collapses and start to form the stars and plants, but this is the first time they have been able to see proof that it really does happen.
The lead researcher is Leslie Looney, professor of astronomy at the University of Illinois. The rest of the team is former undergraduate student John Tobin (now at the University of Michigan) and graduate student Woojin Kwon. The Spitzer Space Telescope is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.
The research was funded by NASA.
Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign http://www.eurekalert.org/